Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Vaccines, Climate Change, and the Role of Citizen Science

The role of science in politics and the popular culture is often messy. From Galileo claiming the Earth revolves around the sun to Darwin proposing evolutionary theory, the public is not always quick to accept scientific advances.  This continues today.  In a recent poll the Pew Research Center noted that only 50% of the public believes humanity is causing climate change as compared to 87% of scientists.  The same is true for vaccines,  where 68% of the public believes they should be required compared to 87% of scientists.   This plays out in my own life when debating friends on social media about the importance of stopping measles and encouraging childhood vaccination.  During these conversations I often wish people would just accept the word of scientists and believe what we tell them.  But how do I say that as a citizen scientist?

The problem is that whenever I talk about citizen science, in this blog or elsewhere, I talk about how everyday people can become researchers themselves and stand as equals with full-time, professional scientists.  There is too much data available in the public domain, too many powerful tools available, and too many unanswered questions to discourage the public's participation in scientific research.  This includes global climate data and numerous articles on the relative safety/efficacy of vaccines that are free and publicly available. These are open to interpretation and debate, as are all scientific data and papers. Why can't citizen scientists join that debate too?

To me it all comes down to a simple rule for citizen scientists -- research with a humble confidence.  I touted this idea last year after the Boston Marathon manhunt (which publicly fingered the wrong people) and think it still applies.  Citizen scientists should boldly address and tackle the big issues of the day and let the world know about it.  But they should also realize they may be wrong.

There is a concept that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" which fully applies here.  If you have evidence that the earth is actually cooling, that vaccines cause autism, or that the moon landing was faked, as scientists we are obliged to hear you out.  But you must back it up.  If you try to upend the work of thousands of independent researchers who have studied over the same question you are, but over a much longer period of time, you better have your facts straight.  And you can't just come up with one or two minor points to justify throwing out an entire scientific paradigm.  You need proof.

Citizen scientists also need to understand that there is a difference between research and advocacy.  It is one thing to perform one's own investigations and debate the merits of various pieces of evidence.  This is how science works.  But we should not then go straight into telling people to stop listening to doctors or ignore medical consensus based just on your own opinion.  Instead publish your thoughts (either formally or informally) and open it up for comments.  Let people review your evidence and let them challenge it.  You may quickly find you were very wrong, or missed some very important points.  Or the evidence may not be as clear-cut as you initially sensed.

Just like the regular scientific world you must put your opinions up for "peer review".  I've done that here on my own blog.  As a silly but relevant example, I've had a long-standing hypothesis that the longest film nominated for the Best Editing Oscar each year is much more likely to win than the others, and that the longer (and less edited) a film is the more likely it is to win.  I made my predictions and published them.  Then the next two Oscar telecasts came through and my forecasts were incorrect.  I was wrong.  But I researched with a humble confidence, and accepted when my hypothesis didn't hold up.

Finally, always recognize the ramifications of your actions.  It is one thing for me to argue about the Best Editing Oscar and make predictions.  If I am wrong nobody is hurt.  Or even to write about bird migrations or asteroid sightings.  Put your opinion out there and let it be judged.  But if you are making medical claims or recommendations, you can cause very real harm to the people who hear you.  That doesn't mean you are wrong or that you should not speak up.  It just means you need a highly compelling case before you do.  Even then, are you really the best person to make that recommendation?  Instead, try using your evidence to convince the medical establishment and if your case is strong enough, they can make the recommendation for you.  Mind your ethics and don't play around with people's lives.

In all of these cases citizen scientists are still doing research and should remain confident in their findings.  But they must also remain humble, letting other people review the work and not taking lightly the impact of their thoughts on people's lives or property.

Citizen scientists have so much to offer in assisting research, and can have an important role in challenging existing theories. We just need to be careful.




P.S.  As always, the thoughts above are my own and do not reflect the views of any other organization or government agency.

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